Monday, 27 November 2017

The Chewing Gum Theory: How to know when your manuscript is finished

“Are you happy with it?” asks Sue, my manuscript assessor. The ‘it’ being a picture book manuscript I’ve been toiling over for the past 10 months. ‘Wow,’ I think, ‘that’s a big question, Sue.’

A fresh pellet of gum


Back in March I wrote the first draft of this picture book manuscript. Writing a first draft is delicious. It’s the fresh, shiny pellet you pop out of the packet, knowing those first few chews involve cracking through a sweet outer shell into tasty al dente gum beneath.

Writing the first draft is how you picture writing to be; fingers flying over the keyboard, words pouring out, pages filling up with text and inspiration tingling in your gut. It’s a heady experience. You’re so drunk with the pleasure of it that for a fleeting moment, you think, ‘I’m done! It’s a masterpiece!’ *drops mic, pours glass of wine*.

The next logical step on writing a first draft is always to sleep on it. Because in the stark light of day you realise this thing you’ve made needs a lot of work, leaving you wondering exactly what happened last night???

Months of masticating


Then the editing process begins. Chewing it over, and over, and over. I revised and rewrote the story countless times before sending it off to my manuscript assessor. Then I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers and hoped she would be gentle.

Constructive feedback was returned. I took a deep breath, put my big girl pants on and continued chewing. This is where the real work begins. The gum is no longer new and exciting. This is the lengthy middle phase where you stretch it out, wind it around your finger, chew it some more, blow bubbles and basically work that sucker for all it’s worth.

I believe that writing is 10% actually writing and 90% editing. There are extended periods of time where you’re just staring out the window followed by short bursts of typing and then deleting everything you’ve just written. Sometimes, finishing your work having torn your story to shreds and abandoning it in favour of walking the dog (where many creative solutions can be found).

At some point, at a loss for what else I could possibly do to improve it, I sent it back for more assessment.

Knowing when to stick it


The feedback returned with only a few minor recommendations – that dog walking really paid off… That’s when I knew I was getting close to completion. Just a few segues here and a gentle cruise on Thesaurus.com there. Then, back she goes (hopefully) one last time.

“It reads really well,” says Sue. “Are you happy with it?”

Well, to wrap up the chewing gum theory, this story has become so familiar to me over the past year it now resembles that gum stage when you just can’t wait to find somewhere to stick it. I can no longer remember if it was supposed to be minty or fruity. It’s just an exhausted mass. The underside of a park bench beckons. I just want to ditch it there and walk away.

I am so happy that it passes muster! But frankly, that manuscript has left me a bit of an exhausted mass. I think I need some quiet time away from it and to come back with fresh eyes to properly form an objective opinion. Because right now, I don’t really feel anything at all.

But that’s also how I know it’s finished. I put everything into the story that I could, and now our journey of creation has come to a close. I’m ready to let it go into the world. After all, a story doesn’t belong to the writer, it belongs to the readers. If I feel anything, I feel free from it and ready for something new. I can let it go into the world with utter detachment. I feel at ease with calling it finished. I think that’s a comfortable place to wind up.

Where analogies fall down


But now this is where my chewing gum analogy falls down, because not only would I never actually stick gum to the underside of a park bench, (that’s gross), I also don’t condone children picking it off and eating it. What’s more, I don’t even like chewing gum.

None-the-less, that is the analogy that sprung to mind, so I ran with it.

When stories go into the world


So, what happens when stories go into the world? Well, most of the time, absolutely nothing. And that’s fine, because by then it well and truly doesn’t belong to me anyway.

But when you do get some feedback on something you’ve written it comes as a wonderful surprise. I’m always really touched to hear when something I created resonates so much with someone they care to let me know.

That’s what happened last night as I was receiving heavy criticism from Miss 2 (nearly 3) about the inclusion of grated carrot in her meal. The phone rang. It was Helen from The Taumaranui Writers’ Group calling to tell me I’d won 3rd prize in The William Taylor Memorial Heartland Short Story Competition for 2017.

“Would you like me to read you some of the judge’s comments?” she asks.

“Yes please,” I say, listening happily as she goes on.

Mr 4 (nearly 5) and Miss 2 (nearly 3) grizzle in unison over their culinary disappointment.

“Would you like me to go on?” Helen asks.

“Yes please,” I say.